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Chapter 1 Holy Songs from Happy Saints
Now let me sing to my Well-beloved a song. Isaiah 5:1
A prophet inspired by God wrote these words. He did not consider singing a song of praise to be beneath his position. It was no waste of his important time to occupy himself with song. There is no activity under heaven that is more exalting than praising God. However great may be the work for which we are responsible, we will always do well if we pause to spend time in sacred praise. I do not wish to show a preference for one spiritual exercise over another; otherwise, I think I would endorse the words of an old clergyman who said that a line of praise was even better than a page of prayer--that praise was the highest, noblest, best, most satisfying, and most healthful occupation in which a Christian could be found. If these sentiments may be regarded as the words of the church, the church of old did well to turn all her thoughts in the direction of praising God. Though the winning of souls is a great thing, though the edifying of believers is an important matter, though the reclamation of backsliders calls for earnest attention, yet never, never, never may we cease from praising and magnifying the name of the Well Beloved. This is to be our occupation in heaven. Let us begin the music now and make a heaven of the church, even here below.
THE STRAINS OF THE SOUL'S SONG Days without a Song
The words of the text, "Now let me sing," give us a starting place. "Now let me sing." Does that not imply that there were times when the writer of these words could not sing? "Now," said he, "let me sing to my Well-beloved." There were times, then, when his voice, his heart, and his circumstances were not in such a state that he could praise God. My friends, a little while ago, we could not sing to our Well Beloved, for we did not love Him, we did not know Him, we were dead in trespasses and sins. Perhaps we joined in sacred song, but we mocked the Lord in doing so. We stood up with His people, making the same sounds as they did, but our hearts were far from Him. Let us be ashamed of those counterfeit psalms. Let us shed tears of repentance that we could so insincerely have come before the Lord Most High. Then, after being convicted of our sinful state, our guilt lay heavily on us. We still could not sing to our Well Beloved. Our music was pitched low and in a mournful minor key. We could produce only sighs and groans. I well remember when my nights were spent in grief and my days in bitterness. A perpetual prayer, a confession of sin, and a bemoaning of myself occupied all my time. I could not sing then, and if any of you are in that condition, I know you cannot sing just now. What a mercy it is that you can pray. Bring forth the fruit that is in season, and in your case, the most seasonable fruit will be a humble acknowledgment of your sin, an earnest seeking for mercy through Christ Jesus. Take care of that, and soon, you, too, will sing a song to your Well Beloved. Friends in Christ, it has now been a number of years since some of us first believed in Him, but since then, there have been times when we could not sing. Sad for us, there was a time when we did not watch our steps, but went astray, when the Flatterer led us from the straight road that leads to heaven and brought us into sin. Then the chastisement of God came on us. Our hearts were broken until we cried out in anguish, as David did in Psalm 51. If we did sing, we could only bring out penitential odes, but no songs. We laid aside all parts of the Psalms that had to do with praising the Lord, and we could only groan forth the notes of repentance. There were no songs for us until at last Immanuel smiled upon us once more. We were reconciled again, brought back from our wanderings, and restored to a sense of divine favor. Besides that, we have occasionally had to sorrow through the loss of the light of God's countenance. It is not always summer weather with the best of us. Though, for the most part,
We can read our title clear, To mansions in the skies.
But we have our times of fasting when the Bridegroom is not with us (Matt. 9:15). He does not intend that this world should be so much like heaven that we should be willing to stop in it; therefore, He sometimes passes a cloud before the sun so that in our darkness, we may cry out, "Oh, that I knew where I might find Him, that I might come to His seat" (Job 23:3). Even the means of grace at such times will bring us no comfort. We may go to the throne of mercy in private prayer, but even there, we will perceive little light. If the Lord withdraws Himself, there is no merrymaking in the soul, but sadness, darkness, and gloom covering all. Then we hang our harps on the willows. If anyone requires a song from us, we tell them we are in a strange land, and the King has gone; how can we sing? (See Psalm 137:24.) Our hearts are heavy, and our sorrows are multiplied. Also, we cannot sing the praises of our Well Beloved very well when the church of God is under a cloud. I trust we are such true patriots, such real citizens of the New Jerusalem that, when Christ's kingdom does not advance, our hearts are full of anguish. Beloved, if you happen to be a member of a divided church where the ministry appears to be without power, where there are no additions, no conversions, no spiritual life, then, indeed, you will feel that whatever the state of your own heart, you must sigh and cry for the desolations of the church of God. "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!" (Ps. 137:5). This is the view of every true citizen of Zion. Our hearts may flourish, and our souls may be like well-watered gardens, yet if we see the place of worship neglected, the Lord's house dishonored, the church diminished and brought low, the Gospel held in contempt, infidelity rampant, superstition stalking through the land, the old doctrines denied, and the Cross of Christ made to be of no effect, then we feel we cannot sing. Our hearts are not in tune, our fingers forget the accustomed strings, and we cannot sing a song to our Well Beloved. With these exceptions, however, I turn to a very different strain and say that the whole life of the Christian ought to be describable by the text, "Now let me sing to my Well-beloved a song." From the first moment that our sin is pardoned to the last moment that we are here on earth, it should forever be our delight to sing to our Well Beloved. How can we do that? We can do it in the following ways.
There is such a thing as "thanks-feeling"--feeling thankful. This ought to be the general, universal spirit of the Christian. Suppose you are not rich. Be thankful that you have food to eat, something to drink, and clothes to wear. Suppose that you did not have any hope of heaven. I might say to a sinner, "Be thankful that you are not in hell." But to a Christian, I would add, "Be thankful that you will never be there, and that, if just now your present joys do not overflow, yet "there remains a rest for the people of God" (Heb. 4:9). Let that console you. Is there ever a day in the year, or ever a moment in the day, in which the Christian should not be grateful? Quickly, I can respond: there is never such a day; there is never such a moment. Since we are always receiving precious blessings too numerous to count, let us continuously be exalting the hand that gives them. Before the foundation of the world, our names were engraved on the Savior's hands (Isa. 49:16). In Christ, we have always been redeemed by His precious blood, always been preserved by the power of God, always been secure of the heritage given to us in covenant by the blood of Christ; therefore, let us always be grateful. If we are not always singing with our lips, let us always be singing with our hearts.
Then, we should always be "thanks-living." I think that is a better thing than thanksgiving--thanks-living. How is this to be done? By a general cheerfulness of manner, by an obedience to the command of Him by whose mercy we live, by a perpetual, constant delighting of ourselves in the Lord, and by a submission of our desires to His will. Oh, I wish that our whole life might be a psalm; that every day might be a stanza of a mighty poem; that from the day of our spiritual birth until we enter heaven, we might be pouring forth sacred music in every thought, word, and action. Let us give Him thankfulness and thanks-living.
But then let us add "thanks-speaking." I have written often about the matter of prayer, but perhaps I should be just as earnest in addressing the matter of praise. We do not sing enough, my friends. Do we sing as much as the birds? Yet what do birds have to sing about compared to us? Do you think we sing as much as the angels? Yet they were never redeemed by the blood of Christ. Birds of the air, will you excel me? Angels of heaven, will you exceed me? You have done so, but I intend to imitate you from now on, and day by day, night by night, I will pour forth my soul in sacred song.
We may sometimes thank God not only by feeling thankful, living thankfully, and speaking our thanks, but by silently blessing Him. This consists of suffering patiently and accepting the bad as well as the good from Jehovah's hand; it is often better thanksgiving than the noblest psalm that the tongue could express. When you bow down before Him and say, "Not My will, but Yours, be done"(Luke 22:42), you show Him honor equal to the "Hallelujahs" of the angels. To feel not only submitted, but willing to be anything or nothing as the Lord wills it--this is, in truth, to sing a song to our Well Beloved.
OCCASIONS WHEN WE MUST PRAISE HIM WITH SONG
When We Are Saved
The first song of praise should come when our souls realize the infinite love of Jesus for us, when we receive the pardon of sin, when we enter into the marriage relationship with Christ as our Bridegroom and Lord. The song becomes the wedding feast. Should it be a marriage without joyfulness? Do you remember, even years ago, that day when you first looked to Him and were filled with joy, when your soul clasped His hands, and you and He were one? Other days I have forgotten, but that day I can never forget. Other days have mingled together unrecognizably, like coins that have been in circulation so long that their engravings are rubbed off. However, that day when I first saw the Savior is as fresh and distinct in all its outlines as though it were yesterday, like a newly minted coin. How can I forget it--that first moment when Jesus told me I was His, and my Beloved was mine (Song 6:3)? Were any of you saved recently? Then consecrate the occasion. Pour out your soul before the Most High. Now, if never before, let your Well Beloved receive your choicest music.
My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and give praise. Awake, my glory! Awake, lute and harp! I will awaken the dawn (Ps. 57:7-8).
And in that day you will say: "O LORD, I will praise You; though You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, and You comfort me" (Isa. 12:1).
When We Come to the Lord's Table
Our first joyful days with Christ are sometimes followed by other occasions that are not always as joyful. Sometimes, however, we have our high days and holidays when the King entertains us at a feast. It is often like that when I come to the Communion supper every Lord's Day. I do not find that it grows stale and flat. On the contrary, I think that every time I come, I love to commemorate my Lord's sufferings in the breaking of bread better than I did before. Usually when we do come to the table, we, who know what it means, feel, "Now let me sing to my Well-beloved a song." It was fitting that the early disciples sang a hymn after that first Lord's Supper. We need some such expression for the sacred joy that rises in our souls at this feast. Not only when the elements are before you, but when you hear a sermon that feeds your soul, when you read a chapter of the Bible and the promises are very precious, when you are in private prayer and are able to get very near to Jesus, I know your hearts then say, "'Now let me sing to my Well-beloved a song.' He has visited me, and I will praise Him. Where will my strength and rapture be spent but at His dear feet, adoring and magnifying His ever blessed name?" Oh, I wish we would often break through order and decorum to give our Lord a song. He well deserves it. May we not let cold ingratitude freeze the praises on our lips. Now, recognizing that there are some times when we cannot sing, but that, as a rule, our life should be a praise, let us return to the text. Sometimes, on choice occasions appointed by providence and grace, our souls will be compelled to say, "Now, if never before, now beyond all other occasions, I will sing a song to my Well Beloved." I hope that all Christians will feel that way on many occasions. Especially when you come to the table of the Lord's Supper, upon which are the emblems of your Savior's Passion, I trust you will be saying, "I feel I must sing a song to my Well Beloved, for if ever I loved Him, I love Him now."
At a Time of Deliverance
We ought to praise our Lord Jesus Christ, singing a song to our Well Beloved, particularly when we have had a remarkable deliverance. "You shall surround me with songs of deliverance" (Ps. 32:7), David said. Were you raised from a sickbed? Have you come through great financial difficulty? Through God's help has your character been cleared from slander? Have you been helped in some endeavor and prospered in the world? Have you seen a child restored from sickness or a beloved wife returned to you from the gates of the grave? Have you just experienced the light of Christ's countenance in your own soul? Have you been freed from a perplexing situation? Has a temptation been removed? Are you in a joyous frame of mind? "Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms" (James 5:13). Oh, give your Well Beloved a song now when the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming. When the year turns to spring and fair weather comes, the birds seem to feel it, and they renew their music. Do the same, believer. "For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone" (Song 2:11). Fill the earth with your songs of gratitude.
In Times of Trial
But remember, believer, you should sing songs to your Well Beloved even when troubles overtake you, when sorrows come. He "gives songs in the night" (Job 35:10). Perhaps there is no music so sweet as that which comes from the lips and heart of a tried believer. It is real then. When Job prospered, the Devil said, "Does Job fear God for nothing?" (Job 1:9). But when Job lost everything and yet said, "The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD" (v. 21), then the good man shone like a star on a cloudless night. When Job blessed God, even the Devil himself could not insinuate that Job was a hypocrite. Let us be sure to praise God when things go wrong. Make certain that you sing then. Walking one night with a companion, a holy man listened to the nightingale. He said, "Brother, that bird in the darkness is praising her Maker. Sing, I pray you, and let your Lord have a song in the night." But the other replied, "My voice is hoarse and not used to singing." "Then," said the other, "I will sing." And he sang, and the bird seemed to hear him and to sing louder still. The man sang on, and as other birds joined, the night seemed sweet with song. After a while, the good man said, "My voice fails me, but this bird's throat holds out longer than mine. I wish that I could fly away where I could sing on forever and forever." Oh, it is blessed when we can praise God when the sun has gone down, when darkness lowers and trials multiply. Then let us say, "Let me sing to my Well-beloved a song." I will tell you exactly what I mean by that. You may have just passed through a very terrible trouble, and you may be almost broken-hearted. If so, you are probably inclined to say, "I will ask the prayers of the church so that I may be sustained." It is quite right, my dear one, to do that, but suppose you could be a little stronger and say, "Now I will sing to my Well Beloved a song!" Oh, it will be grand work. It will glorify God. It will strengthen you. You can say: "Yes, the dear child is dead. I cannot bring him back again, but the Lord has done it, and He always does things right. I will give Him a song, even now." "Yes, the property is gone, and I will go from wealth to poverty. But now, instead of fretfulness, I will give to my Well Beloved extra music from my heart. I will praise Him now." As Job testified, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him" (13:15). This is the part of a Christian. God help us ever to act it.
At the Time of Death
Dear friends, we may well sing to our Beloved when it is near the time of our departure. It draws near, and as it approaches, we must not dread it, but rather thank God for it. The swan is said to sing her dying songa myth, perhaps, but the Christian, God's swan, sings sweetest at the last. Like Simeon of old, he becomes a poet at the last, pouring out his soul before God. (See Luke 2:25-35). I hope we each desire, if we are spared to old age, to let our last days be perfumed with thanksgiving and to bless and magnify the Lord while yet we linger where mortal ears may hear the song. Break, you chains. Divide, you clouds. Be rolled up, you veil that hides the place of mystery from the world. Let our spirits pass into eternity singing. What a song to our Well Beloved will we pour out from among ten thousand times ten thousand singers (Rev. 5:11-12). We will take our part; every note will be for Him who loved us, who washed us from our sins in His own blood. Each note will be undefiled by sin; each note undistracted and undivided by worldly thoughts; each note full of perfection and acceptable to Him to whom it will be presented. Oh, long-expected day, begin! Our hearts are ready to cry out, "Open, you double doors. Let my spirit pass through the gates so that I may sing a song to my Well Beloved."
Let Everyone Bless His Holy Name
Now I will linger here a minute to address every Christian. Brother, will you sing a song for the Well Beloved? Sister, do you have a song for the Well Beloved? Aged friend, will you give Him a note? Young brother, full of vigor, will you offer a verse full of praise for Him? Oh, if we might all come to the Communion table in the spirit of praise! Perhaps some can dance before the ark like David. Others, perhaps, are on their crutches like John Bunyan's character Ready-to-halt. We read in The Pilgrim's Progress, though, that even he laid his crutches down when he heard the sweet music of praise. Let us bless the name of the Lord. The day has passed and been full of mercy. Evening has come. As the sun goes down, let us magnify Him whose mercy lasts through the night, will come again in the morning, and will be with us until nights and days will no more change the scene. Lift up your hearts, brothers and sisters; let every one of you lift up your hands to the name of the Most High. Magnify Him who lives forever. "Oh, that men would give thanks to the LORD for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!" (Ps. 107:8).
THE QUALITY OF THE SONG
It Is a New Song
I suppose that every Christian has found that he has one of the Lord's songs to sing about. Now will I "sing to my Well-beloved a song." The Lord's music has one thing about it: it is always new. How very frequently we find in the New Testament that saints and angels sing "a new song" (Rev. 5:9). This new song is very different from the songs we used to sing, very different from the songs the world still delights in. Ours is heart-music, soul-music. Ours is real joy--no fiction. Solid joys and lasting pleasures make up the new song of the Christian. New mercies make the song always new. There is a freshness in it of which we never grow weary. Some of you have heard the Gospel now for fifty years; has it become flat to you? The name of Jesus Christ was known to you as the most precious of all sounds fifty or sixty years ago; has it become stale now? Those of us who have known and loved Him twenty years can only say, "The more we know Him, the sweeter He is; the more we enjoy His Gospel, the more resolved we are to keep to the old-fashioned Gospel as long as we live." We could, indeed, sing a new song, though we have sung the same praises for many years.
It Is a Harmonious Song
The saints' praises have this about them: they are all harmonious. This does not mean necessarily that their voices are. Occasionally, some brother sings very earnestly through his nose, often disturbing those around him, but it does not matter how the voice sounds to the ears of man. What is important is how the heart sounds to the ears of God. If you were in a forest, and there were fifty species of birds all singing at once, you would not notice any discord. The little songsters seem to pitch their songs in keys very different from each other, yet somehow, all are in harmony. Likewise, it is very strange that when the saints pray, they all pray in harmony. So it is when they praise God. I have attended prayer meetings where there were people from various Christian denominations. I believe the angel Gabriel would have had difficulty identifying their individual denominations when these saints were on their knees. This is the way it is with praise. I could say:
The saints in praise appear as one In word and deed and mind, While with the Father and the Son, Sweet fellowship they find.